August 2009

Swamp doves and saloons

By Connie Gotsch

Red Mountain Mining District, 1891. The fall wind whips down Main Street. Saloon and restaurant windows glow. The smells of coffee, hot bread, cigars and stale beer waft from open windows.

A man shouts. Shots echo. In the bars, no one pays attention. It’s just another night in Red Mountain Town

Red Mountain Mining District, 2009. Historian Lisel Dees stands on flattened ground where Red Mountain Town’s train depot once sat. Lifting a Xerox of the Sept. 11 Ouray Solid Muldoon, she reads:

“One Mr. Cowan shot one Mr. Newton with a 44-calibar pop Saturday night. The row took place in a house of ill repute. . . over the attention - not to say the smiles - of a Swamp Angel. . . .”

Dees bursts out laughing. “ ‘Swamp angel, soiled dove.’ That was the terminology of the day for a prostitute.”

Dees works with the Encore College for People over 55 at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M.

She became interested in the Red Mountain Mining District while working with Fort Lewis College’s Office of Community Services and a Durango archaeological firm to research the history of some of the structures in Red Mountain Mining District. Her objective was to apply for preservation grants from the state of Colorado. She now teaches a yearly class that culminates in a tour of the district for Encore at San Juan College.

The rowdy Red Mountain Mining District encompassed an area from Silverton to just south of Ouray. The discovery of high-grade silver ore in 1882 brought miners pouring into towns like Chattanooga, Red Mountain City, Ironton, Guston, and Eureka.

Some $30 million in silver, copper, lead and zinc came out of diggings named the Yankee Girl, the Colorado Boy, or the National Belle.

“Today that would be about $250 million,” Dees explains. “The Yankee Girl was the mine by which all others were judged.”

Hard to picture now. Rocks, trees, and hills glisten with chilly rain. Mist curls around abandoned mine head frames. The site of Red Mountain Town is a wide scar between bluffs, nothing more. Then Dees opens the August 1885 La Plata Miner.

“The new town of Red Mountain is now wearing a very business-like aspect. All of the buildings are situated on the same street and close together. The majority of them are two stories high and erected in a substantial manner. The merchants all say that business is really good and . . .one is led to the conclusion that the camp is in enjoyment of a boom.”

It becomes easy to picture a construction gang grading Main Street to conform to the nearby wagon road, and the eager miners awaiting access to the city’s three restaurants and saloons, general mercantile store, shoe shop, butcher shop, surveyor’s office, livery stable, and Chinese laundry.

According to an 1885 census, of 126 inhabitants in Red Mountain Town, 112 were single or divorced miners. Five women and three children lived there.

About half the people came from Europe. The rest grew up in America.

They probably arrived in Red Mountain Town on mules obtained to the south in Chattanooga. Relatively free of avalanches and with a good water supply, Chattanooga provided the perfect spot for packers to ready the animals for prospectors. Local businesses benefited from the rush. One restaurant boasted a chef from Chicago’s Palmer House.

Dees’ laugh rings above the sharp wind. “It was probably one of the only places in southern Colorado you could get kippered herring.”

Kippered herring or not, life in a mining town like Red Mountain was no tailgate picnic. With a glint in her eyes, Dees points to a lone building near the old railroad bed. “Guess what that is.”

One look and and it’s not hard to know the local jail has survived on bedrock. Two-by-six pine timbers reinforced with stout nails create a solid unbreakable box divided into two cells.

Red Mountain Town had a reputation as the roughest place in the district. A Congregationalist preacher who attempted to start a church there fled to Guston. When a disgruntled former saloon employee pitched a beer keg through the bar’s window, his ex-boss jabbed a pick ax through the man’s eye.

In 1891, a traveling temperance organization tried to mount “Ten Nights in a Bar Room,” a play depicting the evils of drink.

“Well, where in Red Mountain are you going to have a play other than the saloon?” Dees chuckles. “So the bar-keeper hung a curtain over the bottles and served water for the duration of the play. When they were done, the newspaper reported that the saloon did a booming business.”

Not all towns were as boisterous as Red Mountain. Ironton, a few miles to the north, had two churches, a waterworks, wooden sidewalks, and a school. By the 1890s, tourists regularly visited Silverton and Ouray from Denver.

The boom years ended in 1893. The market for silver plummeted because Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, a law allowing silver to back up the U.S. Treasury. Furthermore, Red Mountain District miners now had to dig deeper for ore. Corrosive water ruined equipment. Mining was no longer profitable.

In 1900, companies dug horizontal tunnels between shafts. These passages drained water and made ore easier to retrieve. The Treasury Tunnel caught the attention of the New Yorkbased Newmont Mining Company and the Callahan Zinc-Lead Company of Wallace, Idaho.

The two consolidated several area mines into Idarado, for Idaho and Colorado. Zinc and lead became important for the World War II effort. Idarado operated through the 1950s and 1960s, finally closing in 1970.

Today, Idarado’s tailings pile covers most of Ironton. Only the south end of town sits in an aspen grove. White bark stands in sharp contrast to the weathered walls of empty homes.

“Mining is by its very nature boomand- bust,” reflects Dees. “What we see here is a remnant of a life.”